Law school has started back again, and one of the common questions that law students have been asking is how to identify dicta (singular form dictum) in the cases they are reading. Black’s Law Dictionary defines dictum as “[a] statement of opinion or belief considered authoritative because of the dignity of the person making it.” In a judicial opinion, dicta are the statements made by the court about the law that were not necessary for the court to decide the case.
As a new law student it can be difficult to identify dicta at first because so much seems new about everything you are reading. As you gain experience reading cases, it will become easier to separate out the court’s necessary statements regarding the law from those that are dicta. In the meantime, here are a few tips to get you started:
(1) Not every case will have dicta—but when it does, what you are looking for are the places where the court is describing something that is not necessary to decide the case.
(2) Look for places where the court talks about the history of a legal concept. That discussion may help put the law in context (and, in fact, you may find it valuable in your studies for that very reason!), but the history of a statute or common law rule isn’t necessary to decide the issues in a particular case.
(3) Look for places where the court’s discussion of the law and facts does not address the issues raised in the case. If it does not address the issues, that discussion is not necessary to decide the case and is likely dicta.
(4) Look for places where the court is discussing a hypothetical situation. Maybe the court talks about some facts that are not actually the facts of the case, and discusses what would happen if the law was applied to those hypothetical facts—this is a really good example of dicta. For example, in the first few weeks of most Torts classes, law students read the case of Vosburg v. Putney, 50 N.W. 403 (Wis. 1891). In this case, the court held that the defendant was liable for the tort of battery because he kicked (or maybe nudged) the plaintiff’s leg. The facts of the case show that the incident took place in the classroom, after the teacher had called the class to order. The court talks about what would have happened if the kick had taken place on the playground instead of in the classroom. Because the kick did not take place on the playground, this discussion was not necessary to the court’s decision and any legal statements about the hypothetical are dicta.
(5) I always look for dicta last—if you identify the issue(s), holding, and rationale behind the court’s holding first, you will be able to more efficiently identify things that were not necessary to the court’s resolution of the issue(s).